Microsoft begs hardware makers: don’t screw Windows 7 like Vista

Microsoft has confirmed that there will be a widespread public beta of Windows 7 in early 2009 while urging device manufacturers to start immediate testing with its pre-beta release to avoid the widespread hardware compatibility problems that contributed so much to the negative perception of Vista.

APC is on the ground at Microsoft’s WinHEC conference in Los Angeles following hard on the heels of its Professional Developers Conference which is the second major public outing for Windows 7 in a month. But while PDC was all about convincing developers to start working with Windows 7 WinHEC is focused squarely on hardware manufacturers.

Driver problems with popular devices were one of the main reasons why Vista came across like five years of wasted effort when it originally debuted a fact acknowledged by Microsoft executives as they opened WinHEC. “When we shipped Vista we immediately started getting quite a lot of feedback” Jon DeVaan senior vice president of the Windows Core Operating System Division said in his opening remarks.

While DeVaan is adamant that 95% of PCs now have good driver support Microsoft doesn’t want a repeat of that experience when Windows 7 comes around and thus constantly emphasised the need to cooperate with hardware builders. “Ecosystem readiness is a super-important part of the lessons learned” DeVaan said.

That may be slightly easier because Windows 7 represents a less radical evolution for hardware companies. “In Vista we changed a lot of our device driver models and other things at low levels of the system” DeVaan said. “For Windows 7 we have the tenet that if something works on Vista it really should work on Windows 7.”

Indeed while Windows 7 has an enhanced driver installation model that is designed to simplify installation many of its features are implemented via XML and other information stored in what’s known as the Device Display Object. In theory hardware manufacturers can simply add those components to their existing Vista driver rather than rewriting the entire code base.

However the window of opportunity (ahem) for relatively private testing won’t be wide. Windows vice president Steven Sinofsky confirmed that Microsoft hopes to have a widespread release of an official Windows 7 beta in early 2009. Although widely available both via its PDC and WinHEC appearances and through numerous illegal torrent sites the current Windows 7 release is the internal M3 candidate which is missing many new UI features and isn’t being touted as feature-complete but rather as a pre-beta. (Most of the demos at WinHEC incidentally were on later internal builds.)

“The pre-beta is about bringing you to the milestone 3 build” Sinofsky said. “The next step is really going to be the beta” Sinofsky said suggesting it will be released in a feature-complete version “early in the next year” and “will go out very broadly”.

As part of that scheme Microsoft plans to co-operate with hardware manufacturers to ensure they can get their own customers to participate in the beta. “We’re looking to make that super easy” Sinofsky said. It’s hard to imagine companies like Apple – whose lateness in releasing a Vista-compatible version of iTunes was widely viewed as an attempt to derail Vista at launch – co-operating on that front.

While there’s no official release date for Windows 7 Microsoft still seems to keen to stick to a rumoured 2009 launch. The conference notes for WinHEC include this comment: “There is not another WinHEC planned before Windows 7 is released.” Better hope that testing goes well.